If nothing else, "August: Osage County" validates Tolstoy's famous dictum about happy versus unhappy families. The Weston family of Osage County, in the dry, dreary prairies of Oklahoma, actually easily surpasses the concept of unhappy, achieving a level of dysfunction, anger, and sheer toxicity rarely shown in motion pictures, or even real life.
The movie begins with a voiceover introduction by the patriarch, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), telling a young woman he's hiring to look after his wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), about the domestic situation. He offhandedly lists a dozen or more prescription drugs Violet consumes by the handful and mentions that he himself finds solace in drink. He disappears from the picture after that introduction, but prepares the audience for the chaos that follows.
The Weston family exhibits enough problems of almost every kind to sustain at least a whole season of a television soap opera. Aside from alcoholism and drug addiction, the picture trades in such subjects as suicide, child abuse and molestation, infidelity, divorce, two separate cases of cancer, incest, and of course a general lack of anything resembling a more or less normal family life.
Violet, who suffers from what she calls "mouth cancer," which suggests something of a double meaning, occupies the central role in the Weston household, chain smoking, popping pills, and viciously mocking, insulting, and abusing everyone, with special attention to her three grown daughters, who have returned for a family crisis. Though on the verge of divorce, the oldest, Barbara (Julia Roberts), arrives with her husband (Ewan McGregor). The youngest, Karen (Juliette Lewis), comes with her fiancé, a thrice-divorced dope named Steve (Dermot Mulroney). The faithful Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) lives in the decaying home, suffering her mother's tantrums and self-pity.
The only person Violet spares at all from her constant vituperation, her sister Mattie (Margo Martindale), harbors a dark secret of her own, which involves her feckless son Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his relationship with Ivy. Nobody in the Weston family escapes the pervasive anguish that the horrible situation generates; as a result, the characters spend most of their time shouting obscenities at each other, though none can match Violet's level of vitriol.
Throughout all the screaming and cursing, the Westons reveal previously unknown chapters of their individual histories, most of them full of pain engendered by Violet. Violet herself tells stories of her own suffering in childhood, her sister's defense of her against a stepfather's abuse, and of the brutally impoverished past that Beverly overcame to become an award-winning poet.
The large cast of well-known stars works together unselfishly, like a genuine ensemble; even established actors like Ewan McGregor and Chris Cooper (as Mattie's husband) play only relatively minor roles in what is essentially a woman's picture. As Violet's sister Mattie, Margo Martindale seems one of the few sympathetic people in the group, with her own sad past. Even Benedict Cumberbatch, who is apparently very hot these days, submerges whatever his appeal may be in the person of the weak, bumbling Charlie.
Meryl Streep lays on the hysteria and cruelty of the drug-addicted Violet pretty heavily, stumbling around under the influence of her medicine cabinet, sneering at everybody, foully insulting the most vulnerable members of her family, delighting in the general suffering, and ultimately betraying all her daughters. Perhaps most surprising, Julia Roberts as Barbara, really the strongest and not incidentally the angriest of the daughters, occupies most of the screen time in the picture. Dressed plainly, wearing no make-up, playing a decidedly unglamorous woman, and underacting most effectively, except for the occasions when she matches her mother's foul language with a well-earned bitterness all her own, Roberts is a long way from the glitter of "Pretty Woman" or the flamboyance of "Erin Brockovich."
The level of emotion rises too high too often in "August: Osage County," seldom diminishing into any kind of normality; like a bad version of "King Lear," it starts at a high pitch and never lets up. Tracy Letts's play, the source of the film, won the Pulitzer Prize, which indicates the occasionally dubious value of such awards. On the other hand, Tolstoy might have liked it.